Sunday, July 1, 2018

Controversial Films 2018

Independence Day brings with it Sounds of Cinema's annual controversial films special. The episode celebrates freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial titles, just a selection of relevant pictures that are of interest. For more information on controversial films, see the links at the bottom. You can also check out the blog post for last year's episode.

Peeping Tom (1960)
Dir. Michael Powell

Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie Peeping Tom was a horror picture about a disturbed photographer who is obsessed with the look of women in a state of fear and records himself killing his victims with a spike that protracts from his camera tripod. If ever a movie was ahead of its time, Peeping Tom was it. The killer is a scopophiliac—he has an erotic obsession with visual images—and the movie dealt frankly and with some degree of sophistication regarding the relationship between lust and looking and the way cinema can objectify and commoditize its subject, especially women’s bodies. The use of first person camera work set an important precedent that would come to fruition decades later with the advent of the found footage genre. Peeping Tom also offered a sympathetic portrait of a serial killer, with actor Carl Boehm playing the part as a tragic monster whose murderous obsessions were the result of childhood abuse.

Upon its release in 1960, Peeping Tom was deemed in poor taste and the film was slammed by critics and ignored by the public. With a career that included Stairway to Heaven, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, director Michael Powell had been considered an esteemed filmmaker but the violently negative reaction to Peeping Tom virtually destroyed his career. In the late 1970s Michael Powell’s work enjoyed renewed interest by filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. In an interview with film critic Mark Kermode, Scorsese said that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Federico Fellini’s collectively said everything there was to say about filmmaking. At one point Scorsese even considered mounting a remake of Peeping Tom but after screening it he concluded there was no way to top Powell’s film. Although it’s not as widely seen as it should be, Peeping Tom is now regarded as a masterpiece.

Irreversible (2002)
Dir. Gasper Noe

Irreversible was one of the early films of provocateur filmmaker Gasper Noe. The story occurs in a single evening. A woman, her boyfriend, and another male companion go out for a night on the town. She goes off on her own and gets sexually assaulted by a random criminal. When the men learned what’s happened they track down the assailant and beat him to death. The story of Irreversible is a run of the mill rape-revenge plot but the movie is distinguished by its style and brutality. Irreversible uses innovative camera movement and dramatic lighting and features an electronic soundtrack that is at times deliberately nauseating. The story is told in reverse, starting with the act of revenge, and then moving backwards from the assault through the events preceding it. The violence of Irreversible is extreme especially the sexual assault sequence which plays out in a single sustained shot that lasts for about nine minutes.

Irreversible received severely deviating opinions. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, about 250 viewers walked out, mostly during the rape scene. Those who remained to the end of the screening gave the film a five minute standing ovation. Critics were rarely ambivalent about the movie. Those who hated it accused Irrevesible of being gratuitous, misogynistic, and homophobic, often pointing to the strange choice of making the rapist a gay man.  David Edelstein suggested that “Irreversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made” and called the violence pornographic. Those who praised Irreversible pointed to its technical accomplishments but also to its unconventional narrative structure. Roger Ebert wrote that “ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved.”

Irreversible was initially banned in New Zealand. The ban was later overturned to allow theatrical screenings although not without some protest from New Zealanders who thought the film should remain unavailable. Irreversible remained banned on home video in that country.

Ivan the Terrible (1944/1958)
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most important filmmakers in the history of Russian cinema. He created several works that were important to the Bolshevik Revolution, namely 1925’s Battleship Potemkin. His work was revolutionary in its politics but also in its style and Eisenstein was a master of using camera angles and editing in a way that stirred the viewer’s emotions and communicated ideas without spelling them out on the screen. Russian leader Joseph Stalin commissioned Eisenstein to make a biopic of Ivan the Terrible. Stalin likened himself to Ivan and envisioned the Tsar as a national hero would inspire unity among Russian citizens.

Eisenstein set about making his film as a three-part epic. Although the script was subject to Soviet approval and certain sequences were required to be cut, Eisenstein mostly completed the first part as he intended. Ivan the Terrible Part I dramatized the sixteenth century Tsar’s rise to power and it portrayed Ivan as a strong, decisive, and cunning leader. When it was released in 1945, Ivan the Terrible Part I was a hit with Stalin and Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin prize, the highest honor an artist could receive in the Soviet Union. Eisenstein set about making the next episode. Ivan the Terrible Part II was quite different from the first installment. It culminated with Ivan as a mad and unscrupulous leader who destroyed anyone and anything that got in his way. Stalin was livid and Ivan the Terrible Part II was banned in Russia until 1958. Production of the third film was never completed. 

Eisenstein participated in the Bolshevik Revolution that had deposed the Russian monarchy and transformed the country into the Soviet Union. He volunteered for the Red Army and later used his filmmaking skills to create important pieces of communist propaganda. But by the time the revolution was over and Stalin had assumed control of the country, Eisenstein was disillusioned. Instead of an egalitarian utopia, Soviet Russia under Stalin was a totalitarian nightmare in which the communist leaders were just as exploitative as their predecessors. Ivan the Terrible reflects this. The story begins as a tale of national pride and degrades into the story of a man willing to destroy everything to hold onto power. At a time when political dissenters, or those suspected of dissent, were routinely executed by the state, Eisenstein’s decision to make Ivan the Terrible the way that he did was extraordinarily bold. Shortly after completing Part II, Eisenstein died of a heart attack.

The Death of Stalin (2018)
Dir. Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin is a 2018 British satire taking place in the Soviet Union after the death of leader Joseph Stalin. The movie comically dramatizes the power struggle following the Russian leader’s death. The Death of Stalin achieved nearly universal acclaim from critics but it was not so well received in Russia. The Ministry of Culture initially granted The Death of Stalin a screening license but the license was revoked two days before the film was to open, effectively banning the movie. Pavel Pozhigailo, a member of the Ministry of Culture’s advisory council, called The Death of Stalin “blasphemous” and said it was “insulting our national symbols.” Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said the revocation of the film’s screening license was not censorship but an attempt to draw “moral boundaries.” Director Armando Iannucci surmised that the ban may have been motivated by the Russian elections which would occur shortly after the film’s planned release date. Despite the ban, some Russian cinema owners screened The Death of Stalin anyway and it played to packed auditoriums. Those theaters were raided by authorities.

The revocation of The Death of Stalin’s screening license was the first event of its kind in Russia since the fall of communism. The Russian constitution technically bans the state from censorship. However, the Russian government has a virtual monopoly on most media outlets in the country and observers feared that The Death of Stalin controversy was a sign of increasing government control over the cinema.

Strangely, the ban on The Death of Stalin may be linked to controversy over the Russian release of Paddington 2 earlier in 2018. Many of Russia’s domestic films are funded by the government, especially patriotic stories about Russian history and culture, and Paddington 2 was scheduled to open the same weekend as the Russian productions Scythian and Going Vertical. At the last minute, the Russian Ministry of Culture postponed the release Paddington 2. This caused an uproar among cinema owners and moviegoers who were looking forward to seeing the family-friendly movie. Buckling to pressure, the ministry restored Paddington 2’s release date. The cancelation of The Death of Stalin may have been an attempt to appease Russian leaders in Moscow and to avoid any more embarrassment for the ministry.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
Dir. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

Filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi invented the “mondo” or shockumentary genre with 1962’s Mondo Cane. The movie was an international travelogue that showcased the exotic, weird, scandalous, and violent aspects of nature and world culture. The movie was a hit but it was plagued by charges of exploitation and dishonesty. Throughout the 1960s, Jacopetti and Prosperi continued to make mondo films with each project more scandalous than the last. The filmmakers took umbrage at accusations of racism following the release of 1966’s Africa Addio. In an effort to disprove that they were racist, Jacopetti and Prosperi next created 1971’s Goodbye Uncle Tom. The movie combined documentary and feature filmmaking in a recreation of the slave trade of the pre-Civil War American south.

Jacopetti and Prosperi stated that the intent of Goodbye Uncle Tom was to lay bare the reality of racism and they may have been earnest about that. But even giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to imagine a picture more tone deaf than this. Shot in Haiti under the hospitality of dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, Goodbye Uncle Tom was a lurid and often sleazy film that appeared to take relish in recreating the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. Film critic Roger Ebert called Goodbye Uncle Tom “the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary” and observed that “most of the blacks in the film are apparently Africans forced by poverty and need to do these things for a few days' pitiful wages.” In the documentary The Godfathers of Mondo, Jacopetti and Prosperi defend the film but concede that they didn’t contextualize the images.

The ending of Goodbye Uncle Tom leaps forward through time to 1970s America. In this sequence a Black Nationalist reads William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and then murders a white family. The scenes were considered too incendiary for audiences of 1971, who were still reeling from race riots and other civil unrest, and the footage was cut from the American release. The full version of Goodbye Uncle Tom was recently shown at some film festivals and as Jan Yamato points out “In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement . . . [the film] feels not so much dated and incendiary, but provocatively current.”

The New York Ripper (1982)
Dir. Lucio Fulci

In the United Kingdom film distribution is managed by the British Board of Film Classification and movies have to be certified by the board in order to play in British cinemas. The BBFC may require cuts to remove material that is considered obscene or harmful and the board has the power to reject a movie outright. The advent of home video in the early 1980s subverted the BBFC and allowed filmmakers to get their work to the public in its original form. Reports by some unscrupulous journalists linking these unregulated movies to violent crimes as well as the petitions of moral watchdog groups coalesced into a moral panic known as the “Video Nasties” scare. The Director of Public Prosecutions' office compiled a list of movies that were to be seized and distributors could be fined or imprisoned for peddling obscene material.

Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci was known for making shocking horror films and several of his titles were named to the Video Nasties list. In 1982 Fulci released The New York Ripper, a serial killer picture that was among Fulci’s most brutal films. The picture was considered all the more scandalous in the UK because of the recent conviction of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, popularly known as “The Yorkshire Ripper.” When The New York Ripper was submitted for classification, the screeners were split as to whether it should be granted a license or not. BBFC director James Furman was concerned that if the board approved the film and law enforcement subsequently named The New York Ripper to the Video Nasties list the BBFC would be seen as aiding and abetting an obscene work. In the interest of protecting the BBFC, Furman shipped their copy of The New York Ripper back to the original copyright holder in Italy and advised the British distributor to do the same. Over time this developed into an urban legend that The New York Ripper was so offensive that the BBFC had every print of the movie deported from the country under the escort of an armed guard. This of course made for great advertising copy to promote the film.

The New York Ripper was finally released in the UK in 2001 with 22 seconds of footage removed. The movie was recut for different territories and so different editions of the movie on DVD and Blu-ray have different versions.

An Open Secret (2015)
Dir Amy Berg

In recent years there have been several documentaries dealing with sexual abuse and institutional corruption. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God documented sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, The Hunting Ground covered rape culture on college campuses, and The Invisible War dealt with the issue in the United States’ military. One of the most contentious of these abuse documentaries was An Open Secret. The film dealt with sexual abuse in the entertainment industry and claimed to expose a pedophilia ring that reached the highest levels of Hollywood power.

An Open Secret had a difficult time finding an audience. The movie was directed by Amy Berg, who received an Oscar nomination for the 2007 documentary Deliver Us from Evil which dealt with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Despite being helmed by an esteemed documentarian working in a familiar subject, most major film festivals rejected An Open Secret and distributors refused to buy it. The film’s executive producer Matthew Valentinas said that festival curators would usually be very interested in booking the documentary “but then someone on the business side would step in, and all of a sudden there was no longer interest.”

The reluctance to associate with An Open Secret may have been rooted in concerns of upsetting the Hollywood power structure but matters weren’t helped by a scandal involving one of the film’s interviewees. Among the several victims profiled in An Open Secret was Michael Egan who had filed a lawsuit accusing director Bryan Singer and others of sexually abusing underage boys. Egan’s lawsuit was withdrawn and his attorneys admitted that the sex abuse claims were “untrue and provably false” and paid a seven-figure settlement. Egan was subsequently sentenced to a two-year prison term for an unrelated fraud case. Even though the stories of the other sexual assault victims in An Open Secret are supported by evidence and criminal convictions, the film’s affiliation with Michael Egan may have been enough to frighten off any distributors.

When An Open Secret was finally seen it was well reviewed by critics but the film had a much harder time generating interest. When it opened in theaters in 2015, An Open Secret died at the box office. The movie never had a commercial video-on-demand release nor has it appeared on disc. Two years after its theatrical debut, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, An Open Secret was posted on the video website Vimeo where the movie can be viewed in full, legally, for free.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

Last Tango in Paris tells the story of a torrid affair between a young woman and an older man played by Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. For its time—and even now—the movie was remarkably raw and explicit. Last Tango in Paris was released when the MPAA’s ratings system was relatively new and at that time the X rating did not have a pornographic stigma attached to it; the rating simply described movies that were intended for adult audiences. Last Tango in Paris was among the first mainstream films to get an X rating and go out to U.S. theaters intact rather than appeal or cut content to achieve an R, although it was cut for later re-releases. It was also the first film to be prosecuted under Britain's Obscene Publications Act although the filmmakers eventually won. The movie was also banned for a time in Nova Scotia, Portugal, and South Korea. Last Tango in Paris was also banned in Italy and director Bernardo Bertolucci was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence for obscenity. Despite the controversy, Last Tango in Paris was generally considered a respectable work of art house cinema and Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Academy Awards.

In recent years, Last Tango in Paris found itself back in the news. The movie contains an infamous sex sequence popularly referred to as the “butter scene.” Maria Schneider said in a 2007 interview that fellow actor Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci worked out what would happen in the scene behind her back. They then sprung the moment on Schneider and the actress said, “I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” Schneider’s comments went mostly unremarked upon until 2016 when an archival interview with Bertolucci resurfaced in which the director confirmed that he and Brando had come up with the idea to use butter in the scene and deliberately did not tell Schneider so that she would feel humiliated and provide a genuine reaction. News of the behind the scenes skullduggery caused outrage. A number of high profile actors and filmmakers weighed in on the revelations including director Ava DuVernay who Tweeted “As a director, I can barely fathom this. As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.” The revelations have led some critics to question the status of Last Tango in Paris as a classic.

The Message (1977)
Dir. Moustapha Akkad

The Message tells the story of the rise of Islam, culminating with the Prophet Mohammad and his followers securing Mecca as a Muslim holy site. The movie was made with admirable intentions. Filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who was a Muslim, said that he saw the movie as an opportunity to build understanding between the West and the Islamic world. However, telling a cinematic story about Mohammad is uniquely difficult because some interpretations of Islam forbid visual depictions of the prophet and his immediate family. The filmmakers solved this by telling the story through Mohammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas). At other moments, Mohammad’s presence is insinuated off screen or represented in the first person as through Mohammad were the camera. In addition, the script was revised to meet the approval of Islamic religious scholars.

Despite the attempt to respect the beliefs and traditions of Islam, misinformed word spread that The Message was going to depict Mohammad on screen and commit other offenses against the religion. The scholars who had initially backed The Message turned on it and called the movie sacrilege. The Message began filming in Morocco but shooting had to be relocated several times due to threats and protests. Eventually The Message was sponsored by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and Libyan soldiers were used as extras in the film.

At the time of its original release, The Message was banned from some Middle-Eastern countries because religious leaders didn't like the idea of the story of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad as a motion picture. And in March 1977 three buildings and over 100 people were held hostage in Washington, D.C. by a group of Muslim gunmen, who demanded that The Message be banned. Although The Message was not banned, theaters did pull the film and future screenings were limited due to fears of further violence.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas. The Message was the first Arabic feature to be shown in the country following a 4K restoration of the film overseen by Moustapha Akkad's son Malek. The screening was timed to coincide with the religious holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr. Following its Saudi Arabian debut, The Message is planned to screen throughout the Arabic region.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Dir. J. Lee Thompson

The Planet of the Apes series was known for its political subtext. All of the pictures in the original series deal with race and class issues and over the course of the films the visibility of that subtext waxes and wanes. In the fourth picture, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the racial metaphors took a bolder and more violent turn. The story takes place in an authoritarian future in which humans have turned apes into slaves. Caesar, a chimpanzee who has acquired the power of speech, leads his fellow simians in a violent revolt. The riot scenes were staged and shot to deliberately recall news footage of the 1965 Watts Riots and the original cut of Conquest featured a lot of blood and gore. The film is climaxed by Caesar making a triumphant victory speech and in the original version the film ends on a militant call for revolution. When executives at 20th Century Fox screened the film they demanded changes so that it would secure a PG rating and retain the lucrative family audience. Among the changes, Caesar’s final speech was altered in post-production with actor Roddy McDowall recording some additional dialogue that ended the film on a more pacifistic note. The original version of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was restored for the Blu-ray edition.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Dir. Trey Parker

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is an adaptation of the Comedy Central television series. The program was groundbreaking, in part because of its vulgarity, but the crassness of the show was matched by intelligence and a sardonic take on pop culture and current events. All of that was carried over to the theatrical feature but South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker took advantage of the greater latitude afforded by cinema. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the South Park feature film contains 399 swear words, 128 offensive gestures, and 221 acts of violence inside of its 81-minute running time. It’s also a self-reflexive movie. The parents of the town are upset when their children see a raunchy comedy film and their efforts to censor it culminate with the United States going to war with Canada. The South Park film was released in 1999, the end of a decade in which the culture did a lot of handwringing about the effects of media on children, and the movie distilled that anxiety into a violent and vulgar and hysterical farce.

Stone and Parker had an adversarial relationship with the MPAA and, according to Entertainment Weekly, their fight for South Park's R-rating exposed the capricious nature of the ratings process. According to the filmmakers, South Park was original subtitled All Hell Breaks Loose. The MPAA objected to the use of the word “hell” even though there are plenty of other films with that word in the title. The filmmakers replaced the subtitle with Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The MPAA initially gave the title a pass but later recognized the double entendre and requested that the filmmakers change the subtitle again. However, Paramount had already printed the first reel of the movie and so the title remained. (The MPAA denies that this took place.) The movie itself went through several rounds of edits. The filmmakers submitted South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to the MPAA and received an NC-17. Instead of cutting out offensive footage, Parker and Stone swapped out objectionable scenes with even lewder material and then resubmitted the movie. The ratings board again gave South Park an NC-17 and Parker and Stone again put more offensive material into the film. This went back and forth and after six screenings the MPAA apparently gave up and approved an R-rating.

  • Eisenstein and Stalin: When Art and Politics Clash. Films Media Group, 1999. Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
  • Behind the Planet of the Apes. Dir. Kevin Burns and  David Comtois. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1998. DVD.
  • The Godfathers of Mondo. Dir. David Gregory. Blue Underground, 2003. DVD. 
  • “The History of Ivan.” Featurette on the Ivan the Terrible Criterion Collection DVD.
  • Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite
  • “A Very British Psycho.” Featurette on the Peeping Tom Criterion Collection DVD.